There is so much to think about, and say about, the letter from MP Mr Chris Heaton-Harris to UK University Vice Chancellors asking them to provide to him names of lecturers who might each on European affairs, particularly Brexit. And asking them to arrange for his access to online teaching material.
When I heard the news myself I was interested and a quite enraged. But to be honest, when I read the letter any rage I had fizzled out. Putting aside whether this was planned to coincide with or helped promote the front page headline in the daily muck, the letter is not in itself frightening.
If it really is about research for writing a book, what is more infuriating is that Mr Heaton-Harris is trying to outsource his research to others. I mean what a lazy thing to do – I want to do some research for a book but I am going to use my MPs privilege to request information at others expense (very expensive if you are asking VC’s to do this) instead of getting onto Universities open access facing websites and finding out the module managers names, writing to each of them and explaining what I am trying to achieve and why (i.e. my book) and asking if she/he could ask their colleagues if I could access or see a PDF of any lecture material or syllabus.
Yes this would take time and effort. That is what independent research takes.
But of course this was not about a book at all (its still lazy if it was non book based research!). Its a shame really because if it was imagine how less of a story this would be if the letter had said….
Hello, I am researching a book in a personal capacity and I would like to explore the formation of attitudes about UK membership of the European Union by young people attending universities and I want to explore a sample of teaching content at your University in undergraduate courses that explore European Studies. Is there any way that your Institution could help me with this. If I am needed to attend on site I am able to do so …etc etc
You know a polite and informative letter with some background. But that didn’t happen.
As others have pointed out, Mr Heaton-Harris is surely a polite gentleman and knows how to go about requesting information appropriately. My conclusion therefore is this was no genuine letter for book research but a stunt. Bait. A dig at a part of society Mr Heaton-Harris does not agree with.
There have been many things said about the letter already. I am not going to repeat them much. One of the things that has not been said is that the University would have to gain permission from individual educators before giving that information away. Certainly any material would have to edited, perhaps in a transcript of some kind. Mr Heaton-Harris may have had much more luck just setting up a social media platform and seeking lecturers to upload any material they have directly.
Another thing that has not been discussed is the merging of private and professional views on huge topics like Brexit. This is a very challenging area. But not at all specific to Academia – ask someone in any industry or profession and they will have views on Brexit on issues that do and do not affect their area of employment. There is unlikely to be any topic at a University that is not affected by the Brexit debate. Either on the personal side due to the vast numbers of colleagues we have at Universities who are not from the UK, or the professional side due to the vastness of issues that are influenced by EU law and its implementation by the UK.
I am a passionate Remainer and very much hope Brexit is reversed. If asked, I will tell this to students. If campaigning I will say this on social media or in person giving out leaflets or holding signs. As is my right. This is not because I think everything about the EU is great – infact in my profession of the environment there’s lots of room for improvement. I just don’t believe that it would have been better for our environment outside the EU over the last 50 years. And I believe that much could be changed in the EU to improve its environmental credentials in such a way that not just relatively wealthy countries like the UK can take the hit for protecting nature. So my personal views on Brexit are actually generated by different aspects and context of the consequences for society that those consequences for the environment that influence my professional views.
In class I do not teach “European affairs” but I do teach both conservation, marine and fisheries biology. All of which are heavily influenced by the EU and Brexit. In my teaching I do take the opportunity to make some points in favour or what the EU has been good for – for example in providing a “common market” for the costs of good environmental behaviour by member states. But I also take the opportunity to teach when the either EU law has not been so effective – for example in putting production and GDP over scientific decision making in agriculture or fishing – or when UK implementation of that EU law is poor – for example in the very local scale application of “population” trends under the Birds directive or in successive UK ministers failing to give enough of our fisheries quota to inshore fleets starving most coastal communities of a heart (Not an EU mandate). Overall, from across the topics that I teach I can see where and when the EU has not lived up to its expectations and when it has. I can also see when and where UK government ministers have (and have not) failed in their duties to use EU law for the betterment of the natural environment and for less well off communities.
As an educator I also have responsibility for the future of the students I tutor, whether they be undergraduate or postgraduate students I believe their futures are brighter in the EU with freedom of movement that outwith the EU. Yes I hear good points made by various colleagues that FoM has robbed good home grown talent of many opportunities at home institutions. I have experienced this personally and it really hurts. When I examine this I consider that I have benefited from FoM and EU pennies that took me abroad making me more competitive for a job in the UK at a later point. Yes the world is bigger than the EU but nationalism in employment has always been a threat and is again on the rise. When I also examine the motivations for ending FoM this is a dangerous debate as where it stops is not clear – sure its fair to ask if a French woman can take a lectureship that could have been undertaken by a Brit ( I say sarcastically) – well what about asking if a Scot should take that same job when it could have been undertaken by an English candidate or vice versa…. it becomes scary. So overall – in thinking about the future of the young people I have a duty of care to I do promote to them that their horizons should extend beyond our shores and certainly that the EU FoM was and still could be an excellent scheme to facilitate this (see aside comment on this below).
In all of these issues above, the merging of personal and professional views on Brexit, my teaching in biological sciences and my guidance of young peoples futures, THIS IS NOT BIAS. This is context, and material for discussion and debate. The debate is within reason of course because much of the material I use is evidenced. I can give opinion, but I must justify how that opinion was formed and explain how other opinions could be formed using other justifications (with critique when appropriate).
So in summary the really annoying thing about this letter and the associated headline, other than the lie about researching a book and how lazy Mr Heaton-Harris would have been if that were true, is the idea that having an evidenced discussion that forms an opinion that on balance across all areas Brexit is not …dare I say wise… is bias. It is no more biased than to say given all the information before me I think that climate change will have positive effects on some species and negative on others, but on balance I think it will not be a good thing for our current environment.
All this being said, academics do have to be careful. Myself included. There are lots of positive opportunities for improvement of policy through Brexit. Absolutely none of these opportunities are dependent on Brexit per se – all of these opportunities could be delivered by the EU if the UK and other states requested them. Most of them could be delivered by the UK independently of the EU before Brexit – but they were not. So let me say instead that Brexit is yet another opportunity to improve existing and generate new policy initiatives that can improve society and the environment – for example the redistribution of more of the UK fishing quota from the offshore more damaging and more profitable large fleets to the less damaging less profitable inshore fleets. The difference now is that some current UK ministries are so extremely keen to show how the UK can lead on policy initiatives in the Brexitocene that these initiatives are more likely to gain support than ever before. Academia must remain an honest broker – it must support good policy when it is seen – but that does not mean it cannot be critical of how it was achieved.
An Aside on FoM – FoM was a huge part of the Brexit debate. The data speaks for itself – despite my hurt at loosing out on a job here and there on average neither my income or employment status are affected by FoM. Only in the lowest earning categories of professions did FoM fail society. This should have been recognised earlier and fixed – it did not require Brexit to be solved. The EU were wrong to rule out discussions on this point – as many EU leaders have since indicated.